Genocide survivors gather in London ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day

More than 200 survivors from darkest chapters in human history attend event in Westminster to reflect on their trauma

Genocide survivors have gathered at a special commemoration on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day to reflect on the long-lasting trauma left once the killing stops.

More than 200 survivors from some of the darkest chapters in recent human history joined religious leaders, dignitaries and 1,000 guests in Westminster on Thursday in the act of remembrance for the 6 million Jews murdered as part of Hitler’s Final Solution, and those who died in subsequent genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia and Darfur.

Candles were lit as the chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, was joined by the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, during the commemoration at the QEII conference centre. The event took place on the day before the 72nd anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.

The theme of this year’s memorial day is how can life go on after genocide. Mirvis said many survivors had successfully rebuilt their lives. “Thousands of heroic Holocaust survivors did not always have much they wanted to talk about but they all did an incredible amount. Their response to the Holocaust was action and our response to them must be action, action to prevent this ever happening again.”

Welby told those gathered that while the liberation of the camps ended the “appalling dehumanisation and suffering” it marked the beginning of a life marked by memories of what happened. “The restoration of individuals and communities is our responsibility as a society that rightly holds to biblical Judeo-Christian injunctions to welcome the stranger in our midst and to seek the flourishing of all within our land,” he said.

“The culture of alternative facts, of post-truth, of collusion needs to be challenged at every level and in every conversation and debate in this country if indeed we are to be a place of safety and healing for those fleeing tyranny and cruelty.”

Among the readers were the actors Jim Broadbent, Nicola Walker and Timothy West. Broadcaster Mishal Husain narrated the event, as music, poetry and writing, much of it composed in the Jewish ghettos, filled the hall along with filmed testimonies of genocide survivors.

Safet Vukalić, left, a survivor of the genocide in Bosnia, meets Justin Welby and the chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis
Safet Vukalić, left, a survivor of the genocide in Bosnia, meets Justin Welby and the chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis. Photograph: David Parry/PA

Among the guests was Holocaust survivor Zigi Shipper, 87, from Lodz in Poland. When he was liberated he had survived the ghetto, Auschwitz and was just about to be put on a German boat. Instead he began a new life in London, building up a stationery business, and is now a great-grandfather.

For many years he said he felt too ashamed to talk about how dehumanised he had felt. Now he feels it is important to share his experience, “because everybody should know especially with what is going on today. We can’t ignore it. We can’t just be bystanders.”

John Hajdu, 79, from Hungary, was forced to live in the Budapest ghetto when both his parents were taken to camps, which they survived – he only escaped because he was hidden in a cupboard. He withstood the Nazis only to then be oppressed by the Soviets. He escaped to Britain in 1957, becoming an international sales director for a major hotel chain and serving as a magistrate.

“Who would have thought that with optimism and determination I did it. I succeeded,” said Hajdu, a grandfather. Holocaust Memorial Day “brings back memories” and it “affirms my belief in what I have achieved here and my thanks to this country for letting me live here.”

Special readings were recorded in advance by the actors John Simm, Jenny Agutter, Sheila Hancock and Nina Sosanya.

Reading by John Simm
Reading by Nina Sosanya
Reading by Jenny Agutter

Holocaust Memorial Day, which is held on 27 January, remembers the millions of people murdered in the Holocaust under Nazi persecution, including Roma Gypsies, homosexual people, or physically or mentally incapacitated people, during the second world war.

The UK communities secretary, Sajid Javid, told the event that the Holocaust did not begin with the gas chambers, “it began with words, with people not standing up to hatred, and that message is as relevant today as at any time in our history”.

The service took place ahead of figures due to be released next week which are expected to show 2016 was the worst year in decades for antisemitism, with an average of 100 incidents a month across the UK reported to the charity Community Security Trust, which monitors such hate crime.

The trust’s spokesman, Dave Rich, said the numbers for the first six months of 2016 were double that of three or four years ago and the effect on the Jewish community was “very upsetting”.

“There are a combination of reasons why it is running at such a high level. Lots of things have happened in the last couple of years that have either been antisemitic in themselves, or have excited antisemites to go out and do this kind of thing,” Rich said.

“Antisemitism has been a national political story on the front pages this year for the first time in decades: the Labour party, the EU referendum and the perception there is a general rise in racism of all kinds. You can go back to 2015 when you have terrorist attacks on Jewish communities in Europe. The year before you had a war in Israel and Gaza. All of these things stir the pot, keep the pot boiling.”

Olivia Marks-Woldman, the chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, said the theme “how can life go on?” indicated liberation was not the end of all the difficulties. “It’s not that the Holocaust didn’t end, or the genocide didn’t end at liberation. They did. But the trauma didn’t end. It’s the trauma that continues. It is in the shadow of this enormous loss,” she said.

More than 6,000 events, organised through the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, are planned across the UK on Friday, including exhibitions, services and readings in libraries, schools, prisons and community centres. They include shared meals, using recipes from cultures that were threatened, including challah bread, Rwandan vegetable stew, a Bosnian meatpot, and Darfuri bread.


Caroline Davies

The GuardianTramp

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